July 21, 2003
`Romance Novels,' She Said Adoringly
t was the last place one would have expected to find a Navy Seal, but there stood Petty Officer Chris Berman, chiseled and tan in camouflage fatigues, the lone man for miles in a room teeming with romance-novel enthusiasts. Stationed behind a table, an advancing army of giddy, bright-eyed women before him, he might have inspired doubts as to whether he would make it out alive.
Any worries were groundless. These women were not interested in Petty Officer Berman, a living, breathing prop for the evening. Clutching hardcovers and paperbacks, they had their sights set on the woman to his right, Suzanne Brockmann, a popular romance author who has built a career spinning racy tales about military men (particularly Seals) and the women who love them.
"She's a wonderful author," said Danielle Hessel, a keeper at the Bronx Zoo who lives in Westchester. "She does a lot of research, and it shows."
Jill Land, who lives in Manhattan, pronounced Ms. Brockmann "awesome" and blushed when asked about the sex scenes in her novels. "She had a really outrageous one in her second book," Ms. Land whispered. "It had to do with chocolate and handcuffs."
Ms. Hessel, Ms. Land and more than 2,000 other romance fans, writers and publishing industry professionals from across the country were at the Hilton New York last week for Romance Writers of America's 23rd annual national conference. The four-day event began Wednesday with a charity book signing that featured over 500 authors, including best sellers like Jayne Ann Krentz, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Debbie Macomber. It ended Saturday evening with an awards ceremony.
Participants spent their days shuttling among panels, town hall meetings and workshops (175 in all) that tackled topics as varied as "Love, Life, Sex and the Alpha Male," "Mentioning the Unmentionable: The Surprising World of Victorian Sexuality" and "Making Rejection Work for You." Carolyn Williamson, at 67, remains an aspiring writer from Texas. She might have done well attending the rejection seminar. "I've written eight manuscripts, and none of them have sold," she said. "It's really competitive."
While Ms. Williamson came seeking career advice, others, like Birgit Davis Todd, an executive at Harlequin, the largest publisher of romance novels, was searching for her next star. "We're always eager to launch new careers," she said.
Still others came for the camaraderie. "I've only missed one conference since 1981," said Nora Roberts, the grande dame of romance novelists. "It's a great chance to get together with my friends." Last year Ms. Roberts sold more paperback fiction in the United States than any other author except Harry Potter's J. K. Rowling.
"Everyone wants to be Nora Roberts," Stephanie Lynch, an aspiring writer from Denver, said wistfully. Ms. Lynch had just finished telling Ms. Roberts that her novel "The Villa" was one of the last books her mother read before dying in June. "She's like the Stephen King of our genre," Ms. Lynch said, and then amended that to "Stephen King is the Nora Roberts of his genre," as her friend and writing partner, Cai Smith, from Wisconsin, nodded her head in agreement.
The key to writing a great romantic novel lies not in the bedroom scenes but in the characters, the friends surmised. "You have to have characters that you want to be friends with," Ms. Lynch explained. "If you write your heroine as a slut, nobody wants to be around her. If you write your hero as a dog in the street, no one wants to be around him."
Neither surly nor angst-ridden as writers are stereotypically pictured, the romance authors on hand remained relentlessly upbeat. A mechanical hamster with fuchsia hair sat with the novelist Jacquie D'Alessandro. "This is Pink, and she's here to get the party started," she said. Away from the festive rodent, Tatia Totorica, a calculus teacher and mother of three from Boise, Idaho, bought 12 books to add to her collection, already over 1,000. "My husband doesn't like them," Ms. Totorica said, "but he's supportive."
Last year romance fiction generated $1.52 billion in sales in the United States and represented 55 percent of all paperback fiction sales in the country, according to Romance Writers of America. A whopping 75 percent of romance readers are white women, followed by African-Americans and Hispanics, both at 11 percent. Minority numbers may see an increase in the next few years, as companies like Kensington Books aggressively court ethnic markets with lines like Encanta, which caters to Hispanic readers.
For the writers who create these worlds of nefarious cads and haughty belles, romance novels are as much entrepreneurial enterprises as they are creative endeavors. Two months into medical school at Yale, Julia Quinn, who attended Harvard for her undergraduate studies, decided she would prefer days spent writing about duchesses and counts to dissecting cadavers. Today Ms. Quinn, who talks contracts and royalties effortlessly, makes more money than her doctor husband does. "He doesn't mind," she said.
The association's communications manager, Charis Calhoon, said: "We have several writers making well over a million a year writing romance. And we have authors making double-digit millions."
In order to qualify as a romance novel, a manuscript must meet two criteria. The central plot of the book has to be a love story, and it must have a happy or "emotionally satisfying" ending, Ms. Calhoon said. There are several subgenres: contemporary romance, set in modern time; Regency, set in England from 1800 to 1811; paranormal, involving the otherworldly, i.e. vampires, ghosts, time travel; historical, set before 1900; and inspirational stories, which are almost always Christian and low on "spice," Ms. Calhoon said, adding, "You're not going to follow these characters into the bedroom."
The hottest subgenre now is romantic suspense, with "characters falling in love and racing against the clock, solving a crime, running from a murderer," she said.
As a result Ms. Brockmann, a romantic suspense specialist, is currently enjoying "it girl" status. Wearing a low, plunging turquoise tank top and high-waisted Levi's jeans, Ms. Brockmann, a strapping 5 foot 9, reveled in her fans' attention, chatting with them as if they were long-lost friends catching up over chamomile tea.
"I'm always up for a photo op," she said, posing for picture after picture. At 43, this married mother of two still uses words like "psyched." Ms. Brockmann's last book,
"Harvard's Education," which follows the lives of an African-American couple, helped earn Ms. Brockmann a loyal black following. "I couldn't believe she wasn't black," said Lynette Holder, an African-American lab technologist from Brooklyn, who stood in line for nearly an hour to meet Ms. Brockmann.
In many ways her romances, dripping with patriotism, are perfect for these times. Some novels have even proven prophetic.
Ms. Brockmann and her fans have fallen in love with the heroic men of the fictional Seal Team 16. "I've written 17 books about Navy Seals, and I don't get tired of it," she said. "I don't find it limiting. These guys are fascinating."
Long after the other authors had packed up and headed back to their hotel rooms, Ms. Brockmann was still signing away, her energy refusing to wane. She had no pretenses about her romance career, which she began a decade ago after abandoning screenwriting.
"I didn't set out to write the great American novel," she said unapologetically. "I wanted to write the type of book that could be made into a movie. I wanted to write the type of book that people would read on the beach."